Film Festivals: Aspen Shortsfest

April in Aspen, Colorado, is a time of transition. The encircling mountains begin shedding their white mantle of snow, ski lifts shut down, skiers ship out, and the conversation changes. Instead of snow conditions, the topic is film, and the action shifts to the center of town, where lively crowds pour into the Wheeler Opera House to partake in the Aspen Shortsfest, now the premiere short film festival in the United States.

Founded in 1992 as a spin-off from the Aspen Filmfest, this event has been steadily gathering steam. Since 1995, when Laura Thielen left the San Francisco International Film Festival to come on board as executive director, the festival has grown from two days to six and the program from 24 films to 70. The roster now includes filmmakers from around the world, and this year the beautifully restored Victorian opera house was reverberating with accents from England, Scotland, Belgium, France, Japan, Australia, and Greece. It’s like an Olympic Village for filmmakers.

But the goal of Thielen and her team isn’t growth for growth’s sake. “There’s a difference between enlargement and enrichment,” explains Shortsfest competition coordinator George Eldred. The festival has taken great efforts to find a delicate balance–expanding to the point where they’re on the radar of American filmmakers and international entities that fund or program shorts, while staying small enough to preserve the festival’s intimacy and informality. They’re now at a point where they’re on people’s wish list and have, in effect, the whole world to cherry pick. By capping the festival at 70 films, they maintain a highly selective lineup, with each two-hour program packed with goodies.

But as they’ve grown, the festival organizers have been steadfast about their mission, which is to highlight the art and craft of short film. This is not an industry event, nor is it headed in that direction. “It’s so hard for short filmmakers to get noticed,” says Thielen. “We’re here to celebrate their artistry. Many may never make another film. Some do—for instance, Todd Field and Serena Rathbun. They’ve said their favorite festival ever was Shortsfest in 1995, when they showed Nonnie & Alex, because it validated what they did creatively.”

Field, of course, went on to hit his stride with In the Bedroom. But first-time directors and calling-card films are in the minority here. Significantly, more than two-thirds of Shortsfest’s filmmakers already have at least one work under their belt. Here you’ll find people like Anja Breien, a Norwegian director who has 10 features to her name and simply had a hankering to craft a short film between jobs. There’s New York restaurateur and director Bob Giraldi (Dinner Rush), who together with cinematographer Allen Daviau (E.T.) created the first dramatic film about 9/11, The Routine, a five-minute piece shot in Giraldi’s devastated neighborhood.

And there are numerous filmmakers with day jobs, like Dirk Belien, a portfolio manager in Belgium and father of four. He has somehow found the time to create a body of shorts, including Gridlock, a seven-minute comedy about the repercussions of a misdirected cell phone call, which picked up the prize for Best Short Short. And, of course, there are festival stalwarts like Jay Rosenblatt, a prolific film artist who has been making found-footage shorts for over 20 years, and animators like Sheila Sofian, who just received a Guggenheim. Shown here was Sofian’s A Conversation with Haris, a nonfiction animation on painted glass about a Bosnian child’s thoughts on the war in his homeland.

“Short films parallel the discipline required to write short stories,” said veteran cinematographer John Bailey during an all-day panel on collaboration. “You have to be concise and have a singular thing you want to say. Unfortunately, there are so many features that have less to say than a ten-minute short.” While heads nodded, Bailey went on to voice another common sentiment: “I’m impressed by the number of works shot on film, including 35mm.” Indeed, this surprised many observers, as did the polish and professionalism of so many of these shorts.

Speculating about the reason behind this, Bailey continued, “Many of these films tell their stories through images, rather than dialogue, because dialogue requires a certain amount of time to develop character.”

He went on to wax eloquent about Lurch, a 20-minute short by German director Boris Hars-Tschachotin, which was indeed a standout. An almost wordless film, it takes place in the bowels of a natural history museum, and follows the titular character on his lonely rounds as he refreshes each reptilian specimen jar with formaldehyde. The film had audiences groaning out loud as Lurch literally develops a taste for his work, but in addition to its lurid comedy, Lurch was a feast for the eyes.

Filmed in glossy 35mm, it was a visual chamber piece for glass beakers, pale liquids, and ghostly creatures in their watery graves, and DP Sebastian Edschmid deservedly won the prize for best cinematography ($2,500 of film stock from Kodak). As Bailey said, the film demonstrates how “the sheer dimensionality in detail and visual power can translate to strong emotions. I try to imagine what Lurch would have looked like on digital, and I’m convinced it wouldn’t have had the same impact.”

There’s a telling pattern behind this 35mm work. For the most part, it’s happening in countries that offer some kind of state support for short films—namely Europe, Australia, and Canada. These countries “tend to do more care and feeding of young talent,” confirms Thielen, who adds that “a lot” of festival entries were made with support from television stations. The BBC logo, in particular, was emblazoned on numerous credits. Channel 4, Arte, and Canal Plus, as well as various film commissions, are among the other institutional players that make foreign directors’ lives a tad easier. Lacking this kind of support, U.S. filmmakers tend to shoot by any means possible, which often translates to reaching for a digital camera.

Despite these differences, directors from both sides of the ocean bonded over the slights they receive when it comes to broadcast slots. British director Robert Bradbrook, who received Channel 4 support for his wonderful live-action/animation mix Home Road Movies, noted wryly that “my film was shown at 1:30 a.m.–for parents of kids who can’t sleep. It’s the same the world over.”
Filmmakers had ample opportunity to vent, compare experiences, and listen to seasoned veterans during panels and informal presentations throughout the week. These mentoring events—a strand instituted by Thielen—included an informative discussion on low-cost ways to shoot film.

Moderated by Kodak’s Steve Garfinkel, the guests included Nancy Schreiber and Amy Vincent (two of the six women in the 240-member American Society of Cinematographers), as well as actor-turned-shorts-director Peter Riegert. The benefits of small group discussions were evident here, with the 20 people in the room bouncing specific questions back and forth and getting concrete answers. On the issue of short ends, for instance, panelists detailed a better alternative—Kodak’s willingness to offer special deals on rolls of ‘nonconforming’ film (e.g., a perfectly good stock printed without edge numbers or with labeling mistakes). Or one could hear advice on how to shoot dailies when the budget or producers won’t allow it. (Schreiber recommended shooting a short 200-foot roll every couple of days to print and check.)

Weightier issues were addressed during an excellent three-hour lecture by American University professor Patricia Aufderheide on the response of mediamakers to 9/11. Presenting clips from 22 films and seven web sites, Aufderheide sorted through the initial reaction, comparing what we see from untrained “folk artists,” media artists, TV programmers, and independent filmmakers. To date, much of the work falls under the rubric of “Me and the Event.”

Within that, responses vary from a flat-out nuke ’em sentiment to something more ambiguous, complex, and analytical among independents. But we’re still a long way from any kind of historical perspective. As Aufderheide noted, the first major film on the Holocaust, Night and Fog, wasn’t made until 1955. The War at Home, on Vietnam, appeared only in 1979. History and Memory, on the Japanese internment camps in the United States during WWII, didn’t materialize until 1991.

“Two decades from now,” Aufderheide predicted, “we could be looking at a work of art that synthesizes this stuff for us.” (See The Independent, June 2002.)

In the meantime, shorts directors like Jason Kliot (Site), Jay Rosenblatt (Prayer), and Robert Edwards (Voice of the Prophet) are attempting to process the incomprehensible, and their works are appearing at venues like Shortsfest. As Thielen observes, “If there’s something on people’s minds, it will show up here.”

Timeliness is just one attraction of Aspen Shortsfest. Camaraderie among the 45 guests is another. The leisurely schedule—with time for outdoor play in the Rocky Mountains between the thrice-daily screenings—is yet another. But the biggest enticement is the sheer excellence of programming. Without question, one can find gold in them thar hills.

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